Over the last few years, the face of cable television has been rapidly changing and last year A&E got back in the mix of dramatic television programming with The Cleaner, the network's first original scripted drama in six years. The show, starring Benjamin Bratt as William Banks - based off the amazing real-life exploits of extreme interventionist Warren Boyd - resonated with viewers enough for the network to bring the show back for a second season, which premiered last month on the network. I was invited to the CBS Studio lot in Studio City, California to take a look at the set of this hit series and talk to some of its stars. While set visits are always a good time and it's always fun to talk to the stars, I learned that this unique series is about much more than just entertainment, but before I could find that out... I got lost on the lot, kind of.
I was directed to Stage 9 by the security guard and was shown the proper way to go. I noticed signs on the buildings indicating which stage was which, but, oddly enough, a Stage 9 sign was nary to be found. The reason there wasn't a Stage 9 sign was that the whole façade of this building was actually used for the exterior of William Banks' (Benjamin Bratt) surf shop and, to complete the charade, a mini-strip mall was built right across the street for extras to walk into, and such. Crazy. Finally inside, away from the devilish valley heat on this mid-July afternoon, we were shown around Banks' surf shop, which also became the character's makeshift home after his wife Melissa (Amy Price-Francis) gave him the boot in the Season 1 finale. Speaking of season finales, they were filming the Season 2 finale, actually, when I paid my visit to the set, just a few days before wrapping on the entire season and, after taking a brief look around the shop, we were joined by the star of the show, Benjamin Bratt, who was gracious enough to give up a good chunk of his lunch break to talk to us.
So how do you feel about this second season as a whole?
Benjamin Bratt: I think we're off to a great start. I think that the first season was kind of a learning track for us. The pilot was very much an experiment and we threw a lot of different elements together and saw what works. In that we have a short season, 13 episodes, I felt that by the time we got to the end of the first season, we felt like we had a much clearer idea of what we were as a show, and where we needed to go. By hiring David Hollander to come on as the new head writer in Season 2, with his ideas on how to further reshape the kinds of stories we wanted to tell and the way in which we do that, it really brought an invigorated focus to Season 2. Just in terms of how the show is constructed, thematically, the audience has a much clearer understanding of what's involved. Almost every episode now, you have what's called the teaser, an introduction of visual elements and a voiceover that thematically tells you what the overriding idea or notion is. It's a kind of foreshadowing of what you'll come to learn and know about over the next hour. I find it works pretty effectively and, certainly, the critical reviews we've received upon our first opening week, and the numbers reflected that audiences were feeling pretty positive about the changes too.
If someone hasn't seen the show, why should they tune in?
Benjamin Bratt: Chiefly because it's good drama. I think we never lose sight of the fact that our number one goal here as a collective of artists coming together to work on a television program, is create a compelling hour of television. The subject matter we're dealing with, helps us achieve that. We're not a cop show, we're not a medical drama and, yet, we do have the stakes that allow for high drama. It's a life or death scenario and it's the kind of scenario that I've never really seen played out before on television. Again, we're getting back to the subject matter specifically of addiction and recovery, it's the kind of thing that more people that are willing to admit, have a real familiarity with. So, with the stakes being raised that way, and with the unique approach to it, the show is modeled after a real person who actually does this for a living. That's a pretty compelling backdrop for what we're trying to do and it's also a kind of invitation for people who don't have a familiarity with the disease we're exploring, to have a high relatability with it as well. I'm struck, all the time, with how readily people, who I've never met before in public situations, volunteer what the show means to them or how it reminds them of their own struggles or someone that they know. That, ultimately, is the best reward for us. We feel like we're achieving our goal of making it a good show, but to have an audience embrace it and to share with us that they're being moved by it and reminded of their own experiences, or are encouraged to continue on their road to recovery, is the ultimate reward.
I was on a conference call with yourself and Warren at the beginning of the season, and Warren was talking about some of the cases that he actually took on personally to the people that reached out to the websites. Was that going on in the first season as well, with the social networking sites?
Benjamin Bratt: That's a good question. I think it's something that's built over time, with the momentum of the show. As the show becomes more popular, and I think it has grown in popularity considerably since last year, people are certainly more aware of it, they're automatically tying this fictional drama to what the possibilities are in real life and reminding people that there is hope. That's' what we try to do with the show, to remind them that everyone is deserving of a second chance. Whether you're an addict or not, that's a highly relatable notion to entertain. Everyone thinks they deserve a second chance and, of course, everyone does. Regarding the work that Warren does, and how it's resonating with the communities who watch the show and are actually being pro-active about a particular problem they might be having, they are writing in to A&E's website. He is in the process of building a web page where he can actually respond to people who are actually seeking help and he's trying to set up a database where he can connect people in various communities across the country to sources of help, and that's remarkable, if you ask me. From a simple television show to actually doing some real outreach in the community where you might be actually saving someone's life, is a pretty remarkable thing.
Was that one of the main things why you accepted the show?
Benjamin Bratt: It wasn't the main thing. My main concern, when I took the role on, is I wanted a character who was complex and I've never really had the opportunity, in television, to play a character who's this multi-dimensional and this conflicted. I've been a cop, I've played a scientist, I've done a lot of different roles on television, but to play a man who is deeply flawed and yet somewhat heroic at the same time, was a mix I've never been afforded the opportunity to play before. The fact that it's based on a real guy, who happens to be a hero - in fact he denies that he is - to me, especially in the pilot episode, that really set up the template for the inner conflicts my character was going to be facing, which is striving to be so good at his job and actually succeeding at being incredible at his job, something has to suffer in the balance, and, for him, that means his family. He wants to be a devoted husband, he wants to be a great father, and, yet, he fails at both of those because he spends too much time away. At the end of Season 1, as you probably know, he gets kicked out o the house and not because there's a lack of love between he and his wife, but because she's fed up. You need to be here to be good at being a husband and a father, you need to be here, and you're not. So I think that's a condition that a lot of us can relate to. I know I can relate to that, because of the hours I put in here and the responsibilities that I have, throughout the season I'm more often at work than I am at home, so it has a real personal resonance to me too, unfortunately.
This is a show about addiction, so what would you say your addiction is?
Benjamin Bratt: Chiefly, coffee. That's the first thing. I'm addicted to my wife and her joie de vive. She makes me laugh, she keeps me grounded. I think it's easy to become addicted to love, once you really discover what it is. For me anyway, I cannot be without it. I'm so fulfilled by my own little family that, oftentimes, I don't want to come to work. I don't want to leave them. We did a spot today on Good Day L.A. and my wife called me right when it was over and my three-year-old son saw me on television. He said, 'Mom, it's Dad, look!' He doesn't quite get it yet that I'm on some remote location and it's being aired over the airwaves. He thought I was still in bed. He ran upstairs and didn't find me and he came downstairs completely crying. But, the silver lining is a season on cable is all of 13 episodes, which amounts to about five months, so you caught me three days from absolute freedom (Laughs).
A lot of these cable series are just going 13 episodes, as opposed to the 22 or 24 you have on network, so how does that play into or help the show as a whole?
Benjamin Bratt: I'm not sure it's altogether certain yet, how it benefits the show. What I've noticed, qualitatively, is that it's a lot easier to try to hit 13 home runs than it is to hit 22 or 23 home runs. I don't know that there's any show that hits that many consistently. We're always swinging for the fences but, of course, oftentimes, our best efforts come up short. But, if we can hit eight out of 13 home runs, or even seven and a couple of triples, maybe some doubles, I think we're doing OK. The pressure is off the writers, in particular, when there's a fewer number of scripts to write and, the bottom line is that it's an incredible job to have, but it ain't glamorous. It's a grind. I mean, I'm here Monday through Friday, top to bottom on the schedule, minimum 12 hour days but, more often, 14 hour days and I love my work and I feel like I thrive under pressure, but it beats your body down, it really does. I don't know if you can sense it in the air, but we're all ready for Thursday to roll around and the opportunity to do absolutely nothing. Of course, all the things I carelessly left by the wayside during this work mode are stacked up and I need to tend to them.
Are you working on anything else outside of the series?
Benjamin Bratt: My brother and I just produced a film called La Mission, about the Mission District in San Francisco. We premiered at Sundance in January and then we opened the San Francisco International Film Festival and we've appeared at several other film festivals. We also opened the L.A. Outfest, which is the largest gay film festival in the country, to a roaring crowd. It was a really successful night and it's something that we're both quite proud of.
After graciously answering our questions, Bratt was off to grab some lunch before being called back to the set and we were joined by the lovely Grace Park, who sci-fi fans will remember as Lt. Sharon "Boomer" Valerii in Battlestar Galactica. In The Cleaner, Park stars as Akani Cuesta, a hard-nosed member of William Banks' intervention team. Here's what Park had to say about her role on the series.
How is playing Akani easier or harder than your role on Battlestar Galactica?
Grace Park: I would say it's easier and harder, both for different reasons. Akani has this great personality and she's really fun, but I would say, depending on the dialogue or depending on people's moods, the dynamic between the actors that day, sometimes I can be thrown a little off. On Battlestar it was so intensely emotional and deep, usually life-or-death, and at least I had that, always, no matter what else was happening in the rest of the world, that would always ground me. Here it's all about the dynamic with Benjamin or Esteban (Powell) or what's happening here. On Battlestar it felt like a very organic process and here it seems much more technical. I'll be doing a thing with Benjamin and I'll start walking away and then we cut and I come back and say, 'Oh are you not walking? Are we doing something different?' And he's like, 'Oh no, I cut before that.' It's like getting a new set of skills.
How is the atmosphere on the set different?
Grace Park: Oh yeah. Well, we're in two different countries. We have the Vancouver Canadians and the Los Angelenos. I've heard a lot of times that this is a really good set, and I can see that because people are very friendly and all try to do their best work. There's also a lot of sarcasm and a lot of humor. I would say there's more humor on this set, but also a lot of sarcasm. I'll ask for something and people don't want to give it to me. Initially, I was so thrown off, because I was used to this other kind of dynamic where you say something and people are like, 'Ready!' and get it. It's not like, 'Oh me. I need it for me,' more for my character, and I know down here, I noticed some people think, 'Oh, because you're an actor...' I'm like, 'What is this about?' I don't know if maybe just the tabloids are more infused into Los Angeles, or that kind of thing, but time does fly a lot faster on the set.
How did you prepare for your role of Akani?
Grace Park: A few things. When I first got the script, I really quickly got a sense of who she was, and I don't always have that. I thought that was unusual and I had a quick understanding of how she operated in the world. I think I worked with my friend in a coffee shop until two or three in the morning, running stuff and she had all these different ideas. I didn't really identify with them, but I tried them all anyway and then I tried an acting coach and then I took what everybody said, but then I thought I should do what I felt was right from the beginning. I tried what everybody had said and then put it aside and did what I wanted to do for the first taping. From there I booked Akani. There was that acting side, but then there's also the research side. There's an area where there's lots of heavy drug use and homelessness in that area. Though, in The Cleaner, we're not dealing with so many people who are homeless and that necessarily far gone, or they might be but they're much more functioning addicts, I still wanted to go down there and do my bit, watching people's behaviors, researching what kind of drug use there is, what kind of drugs affect people differently, in their mannerisms, and doing what I could that way. But every day that I worked with Warren, he'd tell people, the guest stars, that, 'Your job is not going to go this way, but it's going to go this way," little things like that. He's been doing it for so many years, so he'll know. If someone is an addict or someone who's used that drug, once they see that they'll go, 'Oh yeah, that's right.' A lot of actors are like, 'I've never even smoked a cigarette.' Some of them, not all of them (Laughs).
Can you talk about some of the guest stars you've had on this season? I know you have Whoopi Goldberg on this season.
Grace Park: Oh God. We have crazy, crazy guest stars. I'm not used to that at all. Usually we'd have someone flown in from Toronto or maybe somebody from L.A. but here, we have a lot of very recognizable faces, people who are quite versed in their craft and are really taken by the story. Whoopi, apparently, called in, called or emailed in. It wasn't like we approached her like, 'Do you want this part for a ton of money?' It certainly wasn't that way. She actually called in to say that she really really enjoyed the show and (creator) Jonathan Prince quickly turned that around to, 'Do you want a part on it?' It's been really fantastic to have her on board and the show means a lot to her and it meant a lot to us that she came to be a part of the show. Knowing that we touched an average everyday citizen is amazing enough, knowing we've touched out to people who have had interaction with addiction, directly or indirectly, is even better and then to touch someone who is such a recognizable presence, who is a creative person and who manages to live their life in the way that their choosing to, a way that they want, it was very inspiring to have her come on board and then just be Whoopi. She was just so cool. Esteban would just start beat boxing and she would start rapping on top of it and jokes are flying, she's singing Broadway show tunes. She was a real joy to have on set.
There is a bit of an insinuation of a romantic interest between your character Akani and Benjamin Bratt's William Banks character, so is there anything you can say to that?
Grace Park: That was really a fun way to start the show and I always thought we were going to cut to like a flashback. We always joke about that, like we're going to cut to some crazy flashback with the two of them, and we never did it. But it was enough to kickstart an interesting relationship between the two, some tension, some attraction, and we talked about it that first season, but we didn't really ever run down that path. I'm not exactly sure why, but good writing, I feel, will take the time to look at how people are acting. If there's a chemistry there, then maybe start writing towards it, or make it intriguing for the people, whether you go against it or whether you let it flourish into something. Maybe it just didn't go that way, either because of what they saw, or because they found more interesting things to play. Season 2, you'll find that it's really become a backstory and it's not in the foreground, whatsoever. But, that being said, I had an interesting take with Benjamin in this one scene and I looked at him and was like, 'What's he doing?' And he said, 'Oh, I was just thinking about our backstory," which was like a year ago and he just decided to do it right that day. It's very powerful every time he does it. It's very confusing, but it's fun.
Could you talk about Battlestar Galactica: The Plan? I know we have a lot of readers that are looking forward to that.
Grace Park: I know, I am too! The thing is, with Battlestar Galactica: The Plan, all I really know about it, is what you know, and that is we are going to get another perspective of what already happened, so we're going to go through memorable moments, some of them you may not have remembered, but if you scan back on your DVD player, they'll be there. What's interesting is we use original footage and then we pop one extra piece, so it's the exact same scene, or we'll try to match it exactly, which was also a lot of fun. They'd have the footage on the disc and they'd bring it out to the set and were like, 'OK, remember this was there and this was there and this hand was in this position,' all that kind of stuff. We'd also go, 'This thing was not here,' because you get a sense of when you were there. Just really tiny little things, I'd be all dressed in hair and makeup and everyone would say this is how I was supposed to look, but I didn't trust anybody, so I went back to my room, I happened to bring the discs, I threw it in and I watched it shaking my head. They were all wrong. I went to makeup, I went to hair, I went to wardrobe and was like, 'This patch is wrong, this hair is wrong and this outfit is wrong.' I showed them and they were like, 'OK, hold the cameras.' That kind of thing takes more effort but it's more interesting for the viewer, if it matches up, it's a juicier piece. There are so many tricks in cinema that when you take the time to tell a story properly, I think, you gain more audience cred. It's more worthwhile following a show if they're not dropping balls everywhere, unless it's supposed to be a little surreal. And, The Cleaner is a little surreal.
After the lovely Ms. Park left, we were joined by Esteban Powell, who plays the slacker of the group, Arnie Swenton. While viewers of the show may not notice it, Powell's big claim to fame comes with his breakthrough role as new freshman Carl Burnett in the high school classic Dazed and Confused (i.e. the blonde one whose mom pulls a shotgun on Ben Affleck's O'Bannion character). Now he's all growns up playing Arnie, one of William Banks' other team members who sometimes lacks the proper motivation. Here's what Powell had to say.
It seems your character is starting to mature a bit this season, so can you talk about where we'll see him by the time this season 2 finale airs?
Esteban Powell: Gosh, that's a good question. Maturity is such a relative term. Anybody who has the ability to deal with recovery, in a way that is beneficial for other people, is always in a constant state of change, I feel like. I think everybody matures, regardless of whether or not you're my character or Grace's character or Ben's character. I just think it's a continual process of trying to figure out what recovery is and what it means. My haircut is different, so if that makes me more mature then I would say cool, but I'm not really sure. We don't get a lot of input as to where our characters go or what's going to happen, so we kind of rely on what the writers give us and try and figure out our own path. It's always up in the air, but it makes the show worth watching, I feel.
What is your character's path? Were you also in recovery at one time?
Esteban Powell: Absolutely. Arnie comes from a dysfunctional family, obviously, from the desert highlands of California, where his family is probably involved in the meth manufacturing business. His history is probably that of continual habitual usage and he was pulled out, what was it, three years ago, by William Banks, and cleaned up and joined the team. He had a relapse last year, which we saw, and that's where he comes from. It's quite a contrast to Akani, whose family comes from money, or has no familial ties, unlike Ben's character, who has a wife and children to look after, so he's very much on his own. He is reliant upon this makeshift family for support and stability and he definitely struggles a lot, on a day-to-day basis, with sobriety and being able to maintain his position within the group.
What have you learned, personally, through your experiences on the show?
Esteban Powell: Interaction, a great deal. I've dealt more on a slightly political scale more than I have in any of my other jobs. I've learned a lot about being patient, I've learned a lot about understanding my role, I understand more about what a team really is, about what makes up a good team, and a good team is only as good as it's leader. I respect what I have and where I'm at and it's helped me to be more comfortable with who I am as a person, just in terms of being able to deal with things that come up on the day-to-day that are probably smaller in the big picture of things, but, again help me cope with my life. It's an amazing opportunity to be a part of a show that is beneficial to the public, and not trying to dumb them down. I think television, a lot of mainstream television especially, has that factor of really just being mindless and I don't think we're trying to go that road at all. If anything, we're trying to shine a light on some of the symptomatic problems that are in society and that we can do something about, and that makes me feel really good, as opposed to watching Rock of Love. Don't get me wrong, I've seen a couple of episodes, but I'm proud to be a part of this show. I think, more than anything, the pride of being able to be a part of the show is what's keeping me motivated in the whole face of all of it.
You mentioned that Arnie is kind of a loner, so do you think there might be a chance that, if this gets picked up for a third season, that we might see some of his family members come out of the woodwork?
Esteban Powell: I don't know. I have no comment on that because I don't write the stories, I only act what's on the page and that's my job and I'll do whatever it is they ask me to do. To be honest, I have no idea. It's all up to Jonathan Prince and whatever he says is the word that I live by.
Esteban was then called to the set and we were introduced to creator and executive producer Jonathan Prince, who took us on a little tour of the set, and we started right there in the surf shop.
"We made up the idea that he has this shop that sells surfboards and surf gear because, well, it's good to have television in Southern California that takes place near the beach," Prince said. "If you could think of a good job, you'd think of something with bathing suits near the beach, and the idea is he's near the beach and he has this cover job, it's just a front."
He also went on to explain that, after William Banks was thrown out of the house at the end of Season 1, he needed a place to live, so they expanded the nature of the surf shop so he would be able to live there and also conduct his interventions there as well. He showed us around the modest living quarters behind the surf shop and also the unique room where Banks holds his interventions as well -which features a bed equipped with restraints, which is something that the show's inspiration, Warren Boyd, explained to us.
"The brain is in the condition where it's not able to make a sound decision," Boyd said. "Whether they want to live or die, their brain isn't in the condition to do that. The idea is if you get the brain enough sleep, that's when all the repairs happen, so that someone can actually make a rational decision about whether or not they want to do drugs, or whether or not they want to seek help."
We were also introduced to a very unique and revolutionary item that is starting to help the actual homeless community in Los Angeles, and something that the show itself is helping implement. This item is called EDAR, which is an acronym for Everybody Deserves a Roof, and it's actually featured in an upcoming episode entitled Path of Least Resistance, which will air on August 18. Living in Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood, I'm well aware of the homeless situation and this amazing device literally does give everyone a roof. It's essentially a modified shopping cart, where they can keep all their belongings, but it also transforms, so to speak, into a makeshift tent with a canvas cover and a mattress that will protect them from the elements and enables them to sleep off the ground in a more comfortable environment by night. Prince told us that a friend of his, film producer Peter Samuelson, got in touch with design students and had a contest to design such a device, with this being the result. What's even cooler than that was that the show got together to make sure that more of these devices can be put to use on the streets.
"We had a couple of them downtown, because we were shooting downtown and we wanted to show what it looked like," Prince said. "Two of our set decorators were so moved by it that they said, 'All this stuff on the set that's real, all this gear. Next year they'll have more stuff they want on the set, because this is last year's green t-shirt and we want this year's green t-shirt. At the end of the year, what do they do with this stuff?' They had this great idea and said why don't we sell this stuff to our cast and crew at a reduced price and take the money from that and buy more of those and donate them. So, look at it this way. A scripted story about a fictional guy that's homeless, leads to real homeless people getting those because the crew making the show cared. That's, to me, what I love about the show. It affects people."
Prince went on to say how A&E got involved and auctioned off some of these items signed by the cast, and the money from that will go to buy more of these EDAR's (which he said cost about $500 to manufacture) and put them out on the street. Wow. That's really amazing stuff, to me.
After talking to Jonathan and getting that wonderful tour, we actually went to see a bit of them filming this Season 2 finale. We ventured across the street from the lot to a building that we were told the studio owns and that served, in this episode, as some sort of office building. The scene involved William Banks driving his big monstrous green truck up to this building for some sort of business. The thing is, he has an addict with him in the truck that he's trying to help, played by guest star Richard Lewis and, at some point, Lewis gets out of the truck and hails a taxi to get out of there, which Banks sees and tries to chase out into the street. We were watching from the sidewalk, and it was bizarre because we saw he was always holding something that we weren't sure what it was. We watched take after take when I finally realized what it was. Since Lewis' character is, you know, an addict, Banks takes the precaution of using one of those draw-tie things to tie him to the armrest of the truck. When he finally leaves, that object we see is said armrest, tied to his wrist, as he maniacally hails a cab. Hilarity. Sadly we didn't get too good of a vantage point inside, so we couldn't see too much, but it was a cool little scene, from what we saw.
Well, that about wraps up my day in Studio City, CA on the set of The Cleaner, which you can currently see on Tuesday nights at 10 PM ET on the A&E Network. I've been to my fair share of movie and TV sets in my tenure here, but it's really amazing to see a show like this that does much much more than put out a successful dramatic television series, but is also taking it many steps further and reaching out to those who have been affected by the show, or may need help of their own. By the way, if you'd like more information on EDAR you can visit EDAR.org or, if you're one of those who are moved or affected by the show, you can visit Thanks-William.com to reach out to this series. It was quite a pleasure to be on the set, and I look forward to checking it out next season as well. Peace in. Gallagher out!